Bees and neonicotinoid pesticides: acute risks identified by EU’s food safety authority

Bees are vital parts of our ecosystems in the UK, providing irreplaceable pollinator services for both crops and wildflowers. Worrying declines in the number of bee populations have been observed recently, and have been attributed to a number of causes including disease and pesticide use, particularly systemic neonicotinoid insecticides. These are currently still authorised for use in the UK despite bans in a number of European countries and a growing body of scientific evidence that highlights the risks these pose to bees. Last week however, the EU’s food safety authority concluded that these pesticides should not be used on plants that are attractive to honey bees.

In a review summoned by the European Commission, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) assessed the risks to bees associated with neonicotinoid pesticides used as seed treatment or granules. The review was commissioned in light of new scientific and technical data in addition to new monitoring data, and analysed the risks posed to bees in terms of long- and short-term effects on colony survival and development, effects on bee larvae and behaviour, and the risks posed by sub-lethal doses. From this body of evidence, EFSA concluded that exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides from pollen and nectar was only considered acceptable on crops that were not attractive to honey bees. An acute risk to honey bees from dust exposure of the pesticides was shown on crops such as wheat, maize and oil seed rape. Information for pollinators other than honey bees was limited, and so the full consequences of continued use of neonicotinoids may not yet be known.

This recent development means that the ongoing debate over the use and effects of neonicotinoids looks set to continue. Despite reviewing evidence that highlighted the effects of neonicotinoids on the bee’s foraging activities and growth rates – see our previous blog post summarising one of the key articles here – DEFRA made no changes to regulations last summer. However, a number of investigations were put in place to explore the impacts of the pesticides further and these are to be considered by the Advisory Committee on Pesticides over the next few months. DEFRA’s policy and regulations in this area are also currently being examined as part of the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into Insects and Insecticides, meaning any decisions made will be thoroughly scrutinised. Joan Walley MP, chair of the committee highlighted the need for evidence-based policy in this area:

“Defra and the UK Advisory Committee on Pesticides have previously stressed their confidence in the safety of these products so they must now examine EFSA’s risk assessment carefully before deciding whether UK farmers can continue to use these chemicals on crops, such as oilseed rape.”

There is growing body of evidence and increased policy scrutiny with regards to the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinators, but does this mean we will see a number of changes in the regulations concerning their use in the future? Watch this space.